The Bogolan Mudcloth
The Malian Bogolan, today, is probably the most distinctive African textile.
To non-African eyes, all of its aspects embody the African “flavor”: its colors embrace
the entire ochre palette of the African earth; its patterns call to mind ancestral and
mysterious tribal geometries; its textured cotton, so thick and sturdy, and its evident
manual seams tell the story of an antique universe of skillful hands.
For the Malians, it’s a national treasure and an essential element of their cultural
identity. They say that Bogolan is made of the earth, the river, the forests, and the sun
of Mali. It’s literally true – it’s not a way of saying – but bogolan is even more: as is often
the case in predominantly oral cultures, a cloth is never a simple cloth.
THE TRADITIONAL BOGOLANFINI
The present bogolan textile often called “the African mudcloth”, has its roots in the
traditional bogolanfini, a handspun and handwoven cotton cloth, hand-dyed following a
complex process involving the use of plant extracts, fermented mud from the Niger
river, a lot of tropical sun and water.
It’s an ancient tradition, but it’s impossible to say how old it could be: its origins are
unknown. Some scholars (as Luke-Boone, 2001) claim that it can be traced back to the
12th century AD, but this is an unverifiable hypothesis due to the perishable and fragile
nature of the fabric.
The ancestral art of making bogolanfini was developed by some Mandé people in West
Africa: Bamana, Malinké, Dogon, Sénoufo, and Bobo-Oulé. Today the mudcloth is still
handmade in Mali and in some of its neighboring countries, like Burkina Faso, but the
etymological roots are Bambara, the language spoken by the Bamana ethnic group of
Mali: bogo means “clay” or “mud”, lan means “by means of” and fini is “cloth”. Not
surprisingly, the Bamanas from Mali are the group most closely associated with the
bogolanfini production, whose “heart” is popularly recognized in the Bélédougou area,
northeast of the Malian capital Bamako.
Basiae, Bamana bogolanfini, Nerekoro, Mali. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
Bamana bogolanfini used to carry the newborn baby, Nerekoro, Mali. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
SPINNING, WEAVING, AND SEWING
The antique rural bogolanfini mudcloth it is made through an entirely manual process,
made up of different steps and involving the use of local and natural materials only.
Spinning, weaving, and sewing are gender-specific tasks: the women hand-spin yarn of
locally grown cotton, using very simple tools; they usually carry out this work sitting on
low chairs or on the ground, often chatting together, with their little children around.
A woman spinning thread for a Bogolan cloth, at L’Espace Bajidala, in Ségou, Mali
(photo by Mary Newcombe, 2010).
The men weave this undyed yarn, which has a characteristic off-white or light cream
color, into long strips, 10-15 cm wide and 20-27 meters long (in the past even 60 meters
long). The weaving work is made using hand, double-heddle looms.
A man weaving a strip for a Bogolan cloth in Songho, in the Dogon Country of Mali
(photo by BluesyPete, 2007, licensed by Creative Commons).
Finally, the men cut the strips into shorter pieces, then sew them together, selvage to
selvage, to create a large cloth or garments for both sexes (male shirts or forokoni,
female wraparounds or tafé). The result, called finimougou, which can be more or less
thick, is then washed in simple water to preshrink it, and dried in the sun. Some
garments are worn in this uncolored whitish state, while some others enter an elaborate
DYEING, DRAWING, AND DRYING
- The women prepare a dye bath (of at least 2 liters) with the leaves and branches of two different trees, the n’gallama (Anogeissus leiocarpus) and the n’tjankara (Combretum glutinosum), which are mashed in a mortar, left to macerate in cold water for 24 hours and/or boiled in water. The cloth is soaked in this decoction where it starts to take on a bright yellow color, then is spread out on the ground to dry in the sun (for half a day at least). The sunbeam action intensifies the yellow color on the top surface of the cloth: this is the side that will be treated.
drying in the sun
in Ségou, Mali.
(Photo by Marian Bijlenga,
under CC license)
- The artist paints the traditional Bogolanfini’s patterns on the upper side of the yellow cloth with a binyé, a pointed iron spatula, a kala, a wooden stick, or a simple feather quill, dipped into a fermented mud (the bogo), contained in a jar. The mud was collected from the Niger ponds and riverbeds the year before and left to ferment in a clay jar with water and often a secret mix of leaves and herbs. Usually, the artist works seated in the ground, with the legs stretched out in her front. She does not draw the final pattern directly on the cloth, as a painter does with oil color on the canvas: she creates a pattern by painting with the mud the background from which the pattern will emerge in the last step of the process. The key artistic element of bogolanfini is, therefore, the use of negative space.
Painting with fermented mud (Mali)
- The yellow cloth painted with mud is left to dry, then is washed in pure
water: the dried mud is removed, leaving a permanent dark (gray or brown)
sign on the cloth. Some recent chemical analyses have detected the dyeing
“secret” of bogolanfini: the mud contains iron oxide which reacts with the
tannic acid in the vegetal dye bath; this reaction produces a permanent
dark color on the cloth (the background). The “secret” of bogolanfini, in
other words, is the use of tannin-rich plant decoctions with iron-rich claybased mud.
A Bogolan teacher working at complex pattern, in Ségou.
(Photo by Rebecca, under CC license)
- These steps, the soaking in the n’gallama and n’tjankara mordant bath, the mud application, the washing and drying in the sun are repeated several times (even three). After each step, the mud painted areas on the yellow cloth become darker (black). To obtain the terracotta & brown palette (the “red tones”, as Malian call them), the women use different mix of barks, leaves and roots. The Dogon, for example, use the tannin-rich bark of m’peku (Lannea velutina) to get a deep orange colour.
Leaves, barks and different decoctions to get a full palette of colors.
(Photo by Rebecca, under CC license)
- The final step consists of removing the yellow color of the mordant: these areas are painted with a substance called le savon de sodani, locally made by mixing and boiling together ground peanuts, caustic soda, millet bran, and water. The artist carefully retraces the yellow areas with a stick dipped into this solution, turning them into brownish zones. Then the cloth is placed in the sun for a week and finally washed with clean water. The brownish soap is removed and the yellow areas, now fully bleached, emerge as a pure white pattern against the dark background.
a Ségou, Mali.
(Photo by Marian Bijlenga,
under CC license)
The making of a traditional mudcloth takes time – even a couple of month for a large cloth with elaborate patterns – but no active money: you do not need to buy dyes or expensive chemical mordants; the tools are all rudimentary and made with wood and natural materials (feathers, brushes made of Palmyra palm fibres, millet stems, etc.); the Niger mud and the plant parts (fruits, leaves, barks, roots, etc.) just need be gathered; and the Malian sun – whose strength gives every earthy color its special vividness – is totally free.
A scientific study, carried out in 2012 by an international group of researchers, concluded: «The chemistry of Bogolan cloth is not only historically and culturally
significant and of importance in textile conservation, but may also inspire future research on sustainable dyeing and processing techniques based on natural products» (Mukta V. Limaye et al., On the role of tannins and iron in the Bogolan or mud cloth dyeing process, see Bibliography).
The following video, which is a part of a fascinating documentary, Life in Ende, filmed
by the musician Coen Engelhard in the Dogon Country (Mali) in November 2017, shows
you the first steps in the traditional bogolanfini making.
Now that you know the basics of traditional bogolanfini making, you are ready to listen
to its story. And, believe me, there is no more surprising story than this one.
THE LANGUAGE OF BOGOLANFINI
The traditional old rural bogolanfini is well represented by the kanjida type, the “classic
style” of “white” bogolanfini
All the geometric patterns of bogolanfini have a decorative appeal. At first glance, at
least. At a second, things start to change.
Crosses, chevrons, triangles, lines, dots, stars, squares, diamond shapes, etc., all have a
meaning: the «geometric elements that adorn bogolanfini carry messages for those
trained in their interpretations» (V.L. Rovine, 2008. See Bibliography).
A circle with a dot inside (koli-so) suggests the unity of a loving family or of a supportive
community sitting around a communal “center”. In the central lower line of the vintage
piece above – it’s a bogolanfini from 1954, held at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte
Moderna in Rome – you can see a drum (donkonkolo or dongangolo), which calls
warriors to battle, repeated several times. It’s a symbol linked to courage as it is a drum
that only brave and valiant men can hear with no quivering.
made in Mali by
in 1992 and 1994.
Both are currently
on display at the
of African Art
The above mudcloths show some patterns in common, like the bara feere, the
“calabash flower” (upper bogolanfini: lower line, inside the diamond shape; lower
mudcloth: lower line, inside the diamond shape), a popular pattern often linked to
prosperity. The central part of the upper bogolanfini shows a complex pattern called
turusina, from the words turu, “to pound”, as when a woman pounds grain with a
mortar and pestle, and sina, “co-wife”. The turusina pattern underlines the need for
cooperation between co-wives in the sharing of food preparation and other daily
activities, encouraging women to overcome their feelings of rivalry (in the Bamana
society, polygamy is the accepted norm).
Many traditional bogolafini characters are traces and footprints; the most common are
the goat hoof prints (bantòròn), which resemble equilateral triangles, and are warning
and protection signs at the same time. Two zig zag parallel lines, one above the other,
are kaana nònkòn, the “iguana’s elbow”, an apotropaic element. A more complex
pattern, called bunteni ku, is the “scorpion’s tail”.
«Une des constantes de l’art du bògòlan est justement la représentation d’empreintes,
pour la plupart des stylisations de celles de l’homme ou de l’animal. (…) Citons ainsi
l’empreinte de l’oiseau (kònòsen), celle de la tourterelle (tufaninsen), celle du crocodile
sur le sable (dantigimari), du petit serpent blanc (sajèni), du chemin du serpent (sasira),
du trajet du serpent (sa tèmènò), de la maison du serpent (sa so), des os du serpent
(sakolo), du serpent enroulé (sa kurulen), du dos du python (dankalan ko), des côtes du
python (mininyan galaka), du caméléon (noonsisen). On trouve aussi les traces du gibier
(sogosen), de la biche (mangalasen), de l’hyène dans la boue (suruku ka bdgolataama)» (Duponchel Pauline, Peinture à la terre, bògòlan du Mali, see Bibliography).
Many are the human footprints as well, often ironically typified: sungurun sen kelen is
the footprint of a young lame girl in marriageable age (a simple chevron), juru sarabali
ka bolosen is the homeward path of a man who does not pay his debts, jina samara are
the shoes of the “devil”, and surakataasira is the path followed by the Mauritanians.
The large presence of traces and footprints in the traditional bogolanfini characters is
deeply rooted in the Bamana world.
First of all, in their physical world: in addition to subsistence farming, the Bamana have
spent centuries hunting and gathering. To carry out their duties, hunters (men) and
gatherers (women) have to abandon the safety of the village and its surrounding
cultivated fields, to enter a dangerous environment, where knowing how to read the
traces in the sand or the footprints on the dusty, reddish ground makes the difference
between life and death. In the Bamanan worldview, secondly, traces are perceived as an
intimate expression and a living part of a person or an animal (in the West, something
similar happens with personal smell).
Traces and footprints on the bogolanfini are not used to indicate an animal or a person.
They are not pictograms nor icons, and in general, contrary to what many scholars
claim, no bogolanfini character is an ideogram or an ideograph, namely a graphic
symbol that represents an idea or concept, independently of its context.
Let’s consider one of the most common and relevant bogolanfini character: the
dantigimari, or the traces of crocodile.
tunic, made in Mali
in ca. 1990, sized
69.85 x 64.14 cm.
Preserved by the
Art of Africa and
Department of the
Institute of Art
Currently not on
This bogolanfini tunic shows the dantigimari pattern: the traces of a crocodile coming out of the water. In this tunic, the crocodile is depicted on a vertical axis, with the legs pointing upwards; rarely is drawn pointing downwards and even more rarely walkin horizontally. What does it mean?
In the Bamana traditional culture, the crocodile is a powerful presence with many different meanings, as it appears in numerous stories, proverbs, myths, female songs; it’s been defined, therefore, a pattern that lends itself easily to many individualized interpretations.
As it lives near the water, it’s used to locate precious sources of water; there are Bambara stories, for example, that tell of crocodiles leading thirsty hunters to water
ponds. In the Bambara language, dantigimari means “crocodile, master of confines”: dan means “confines”, “border”, “limit”; tigi “master”, and mari “crocodile”. The dantigimari knows all limits and borders and can protect the village, as it recognizes those who come from it from the outsiders. It’s a sort of genius loci, that can show the Bamana people the right site for a new village.
As Pauline Duponchel highlights, the crocodile is also the master of conflicts: it plays the role of preserving cohesion and peace inside the village, acting as a sort of a judge with a regulatory role in the village society; in this sense, it is also a symbol of balance and harmony.
In one of its many manifestations, it’s also called mari denbatigi, “crocodile, mother of children”.
In the traditional bogolanfini, therefore, the dantigimari character has no univocal
meaning. It takes on a different meaning depending on the space it occupies in the
composition and the other, specific characters featured on the whole. The relations
among the characters give rise to the overall meaning of a mudcloth.
You know what does it mean? That there’s a basic, rudimentary grammar underlying
these characters. They are not pictograms nor ideograms: they make up a language. A
A Bamana bogolafini, made in the mid-20th century, sized 137
x 84 cm, preserved by the British Museum (London, UK),
currently not on view (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license).
The bogolanfini is not an attractive assortment of scattered graphic symbols, always
representing the very same idea or concept, but a simple system of characters-signs
governed by elementary rules of combination to communicate meaning.
No scholar, no academic paper has ever defined bogolanfini as a language, but locals
do. Malians do.
Still today, the Dogons say a proverb about bogolanfini: «No clothes, no language».
The Bamanas call the bogolanfini characters sèbèn den, “the children of writing”.
That’s why the bogolanfinis can communicate all kinds of stories, myths, proverbs,
reflections, moral exhortations, protective formulas; their characters can also represent
geographical elements such as mountains, lakes, and rivers and suggest paths and safe
trajectories. Pascal James Imperato and Marli Shamir write of a pattern, called Koumi
Diosseni Kandian, “Koumi Diosse, the long-necked”, that honors a folk hero, very much
beloved in the Bélédougou region: «Koumi Diosse led an unsuccessful revolt against
the French in 1915. He was killed in the course of a battle with the French Garrison from
Kati. After his death, Koumi Diosse has been immortalized in the songs of Bamana
griots», and celebrated in many mudcloths.
The problem is that today, most of the Bogolanfini grammar got lost and we cannot
read those “books” anymore. We can only understand some lines of that writing.
There are different reasons for this loss. The bogolanfini was not a “national” language
but a collection of local “dialects”: its characters were part of female wisdom, passed
down from generation to generation, which knew a wide variety of local forms. Every
community or clan used the bogolanfini language in a specific, unique way, and this
variability made the transmission of this knowledge more fragile in the face of
Today the dantigimari character has a special place in Malian culture. Its original rich
semantic field got diluted, but it still has a voice. Here’s the cover of a musical CD,
Muso Ko, the debut album by Habib Koité & Bamada, dated 1995. For many
Westerners, it is a typical decorative pattern put on a CD cover. But Habib Koité chose
it to say something important: I’m a Malian musician, and my music is deeply rooted in
the Bamana tradition and culture.
Habib Koité: is a famous Bamana guitarist and musician; he comes from a noble line of Khassonké griots, the traditional Malian troubadors. Unlike the griots, however, his singing style is restrained and intimate with varying cadenced rhythms and melodies. Mali has a rich and faceted musical tradition, with many regional variations and styles that are particular to the local cultures. Habib Koité brings together different styles, creating a new pan-Malian approach that reflects his open-minded interest in all types of music. Here’s one of the sweetest songs from his second studio album Ma Ya (1998). The song is entitled Wassiye (music and words by Koité) and is sang in Bambara. A recurrent verse says: For all the happy fathers: you have just had a daughter, who looks very much like your wife. You are blessed now with two women at home.
THE MANY FUNCTIONS OF BOGOLANFINI
The traditional bogolanfini is not a simple cloth, used for making hunters’ shirts or tunics and women’s wraparounds: it’s a literary tradition whose themes were related to local cultures and communities, their history, their ways of living, their myths, their family events, their traditional beliefs, and animism. That’s why it had a pivotal importance in the past and still has a central role in the Malian cultural identity.
Malian bogolanfini panel from the 20th century; sized 94 x
152.4 cm; preserved by the Saint Louis Art Museum
(Missouri, US); currently not on view.
The traditional rural bogolanfini was a badge of status and respectability, a marker of
wealth or prestige. It identified the members of a specific group and highlighted the
social hierarchies; it established the social boundaries with outsiders. It played a
significant part in the ceremonies of initiation, marriage, and death; it was used as a
form of ritual protection and a powerful healing tool.
If we dig deeper into these last aspects, we will find a “treasure”. Come with me.
Bamanas gave to some kinds of traditional bogolanfini a magical and protective power.
Some bogolafini male tunics were specifically made to protect hunters not from the
generic risks of hunting and possible wounds, but from a danger perceived as more
“real” and deadlier: the nyama.
In the traditional Bamana animism, the nyama or gnâma is a potent supernatural force
that animates and connects all living beings (humans, animals, trees).
It’s been defined «the world’s basic energy or the energy that animates the universe»,
«a potentially dangerous spiritual power released at some moments» (V.L.
Rovine, cit.), a sort of an invasive “evil spirit”, «the negative power filling any action, thing,
or human being, always waiting for a catalyst to unleash its disastrous effects» (P. R. McNaughton, The Mandé Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa, Indiana University Press, 1988), (Sarah C. Brett-Smith, Symbolic blood, see Bibliography).
Sarah C. Brett-Smith is one of the scholars who most analyzed the connection between
nyama and magic bogolanfini; she explains that «while every human activity releases
some nyama, bloodshed, whether human or animal, sets loose the highest degree of
this power» (Sarah C. Brett-Smith, cit.).
The bogolanfini hunter’s tunics were made to absorb the nyama released by the
bloodshed of the wild game and, sometimes, of the injuries suffered by the very same
hunters. To carry out this protective task, they were created by women with specific
patterns of protective formulas. They were also made with a particular thick texture to
absorb the blood.
Malian bogolanfini hunter’s shirt from the mid-20th century
from the Bélédougou region; preserved by the Toledo
Museum of Art (Ohio, US); currently not on view
The “magical” protective Bogolanfini cloth was a sort of second skin for everybody, not
just for the hunters, in the crucial moment of life, including death: it had to absorb the
urine of the infant, the blood and the sweat of the warrior, the blood after male
circumcision and female excision – that marked the passage from the messy, impure
childhood to the wise and docile adulthood – the menstruation blood, the blood of
defloration and childbirth, and finally the exudates and the fluids of the post mortem
Sarah C. Brett-Smith analyzed the codified use of some kind of ritual bogolafini
wraparounds in the excised girls. (I will repeat here what Victoria Rovine wrote: «Mali
remains a country with high rated of excision, despite the efforts of several international
organizations to eradicate this practice whose social and medical dangers have made it
a major human right issue»).
“Red” bogolanfini is the generic name the Bamanas give to the category of mudcloths
worn by newly excised girls, usually exhibiting two different designs. «The first type of
cloth, the N’Gale, is a severe pattern of black and white lines divided at regular intervals
by a white zigzag design (sungurun sèn kèlèn). (…) The second is called Basiae, and is a
design composed of large and small white circles on a dark ground framed by a
rectangular grid» (Sarah C. Brett-Smith, cit.).
A Bamana Basiae, one the two “red” bogolafini types made
for the post-excision period; sized 138 x 92 cm; purchased by
the British Museum (London, UK) from Sarah Brett-Smith;
currently not on view (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license).
A Bamana N’Gale, the other “red” bogolafini type, made for
the post-excision period; sized 135 x 86 cm; purchased by the
British Museum (London, UK) from Sarah Brett-Smith;
currently not on view (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license).
Sarah Brett-Smitt concludes: «The porous Basiae cloths that ritually cover the girls and
the blood of their wounds are able to absorb the nyama set free by excision. The
painted cotton drinks in the girl’s sweat and her blood as she heals and these highly
charged substances transmit not only the physical detritus of the operation to the cloth,
but the incomprehensible forces of childhood, the unrestricted power of original
nyama» (Sarah C. Brett-Smith, cit.).
Western scholars usually stop here, and my Western part does it as well. But my non-
Western 50%, that part of me coming from the so-called “third world” does not want to
stop. That part of me knows that sometimes, in some cultures, behind the “magic”
there’s no cognitive naivety nor any infantility of reason. Behind the “magic”
sometimes, something of a very different nature peeps out and asks to come to light.
So I keep going on, and you with me.
BEHIND THE MAGIC OF BOGOLANFINI
Scholars believe that nothing lies behind the “magical” power and the protective
“healing” properties of bogolanfini. Nothing but archaic animistic beliefs, of course. Is
that really true?
Let’s start from the very beginning: the dyeing process of traditional bogolanfini,
entirely managed by women.
The very first step is the soaking of the cloth in a dye bath, a concoction made with the
leaves and branches of two different trees, the n’gallama and the n’tjankara, two
important plants, rich in tannins and whose extracts are traditionally used in the Malian
The Bambara n’gallama is Anogeissus leiocarpus, the African birch, a tall deciduous
tree native to the savannas of tropical Africa, with a greyish, scaly bark. The decoctions
of leaves, bark, and roots are used in several traditional medicines in Africa to cure
various diseases. The decoction of the leaves, in particular, is applied as a cataplasm to
relieve different skin diseases. The current pharmacological studies have observed the
antimicrobial properties of the extract of bark and leaves, able to inhibit the growth of
Staphylococcus aureus in vitro. (Ahmad H Arbab et al., Review on Anogeissus Leiocarpus, a potent African traditional drug, IJRPC 2014, 4(3), 496-500). These verified antibacterial properties are very well known to local communities in West Africa.
The Bambara n’tjankara is Combretum glutinosum, a draught-tolerant, medium-sized shrub that grows on poor soils, highly valued in West African traditional medicine.
The decoction of barks and leaves has disinfectant properties, if applied topically; the
crushed or dry powdered leaves are used as a dressing on wounds. Its antimicrobial
activity has been recently shown by Yahaya et al., 2012, and by Alowanou et al., 2015 (see A review of Bridelia ferruginea, Combretum glutinosum and Mitragina inermis plants used in zootherapeutic remedies in West Africa, Journal of Applied Biosciences, May 2015, 87:8003– 8014).
Pascal James Imperato and Marli Shamir (cit.) write that to get the maroon bogolanfinis, the “red” ones, the cloth was soaked in a concoction of the neré tree, the Parkia globosa.
Parkia globosa, or the “locust bean tree” is famous among the indigenous healers of
Africa. It was listed «as having real wound-healing properties, influencing the
proliferation of dermal fibroblasts significantly» (Adetutu et al., Ethnopharmacological survey and in vitro evaluation of wound- healing plants used in South-western Nigeria, J Ethnopharmacol, 2011, 137(1), 50-56).
The antibacterial properties of this plant have been tested by another study, that stated: «These properties compare favorably with those of streptomycin,
making it a potential source of compounds used in the management of bacterial
infections» (Abioye et al., Preliminary phytochemical screening and antibacterial properties of crude stem bark extracts and fractions of Parkia biglobosa, Molecules, 2013, 18(7), 8459-8499).
In the Dogon Country, the bogolanfini is soaked in a concoction (wolobugun) made with
different plants, many unknwon to us. We know only that the majority of leaves were
those of Terminalia avicennoides or maybe of Terminalia macroptera, a plant that The
Malian Medicinal Plant Project led by the Department of Pharmacy of the University of
Oslo (Norway) states it was traditionally used by the Bambara as well.
Phytochemical studies performed on both Terminalia species showed that they contain
tannins (the bogolanfini mordant). The avicennoides is rich in anti-inflammatory agents,
not by chance is used in Africa to heal burns, wounds, bites, stings, etc. (Hadiza Aliyu et al., Terminalia avicennioides: Pharmacology and Phytochemistry of an Alternative Traditional Medicine in Nigeria, J. Pharmacogn Nat Prod 2018, 4:2).
The macroptera has an antimicrobial effect and antioxidative properties (The Malian Medicinal Plant Project, studies led by the Department of Pharmacy, University of Oslo, Norway).
In the Dogon Country, moreover, to get a “red” bogolanfini, they use a solution from
the bark of m’peku, the Lannea velutina.
The Lannea velutina contains tannins, like all of the other plants used in the bogolanfini
making. The macerate of its bark and leaves is used topically to relieve pain in adults;
the bark, the most used in the dyeing process, is traditionally applied to wounds, ulcers,
and leprous spots. The cell protective antioxidants from the root bark of this species
have been studied by an international team of researchers from the University of Oslo,
the University of York (UK), and the Department of Traditional Medicine of Bamako (Ababacar Maga et al., Cell protective antioxidants from the root bark of Lannea velutina, Journal of Medicinal Plants Research Vol. 1(4), pp. 066-079, November 2007).
Sarah C. Brett-Smith, who analyzed the mudcloths used at ritually significant moments
in women’s life, wrote: «Golobè gives both the N’Gale and Basiae designs their
characteristic yellowish-orange tinge. For the Bamana, the yellow-orange color
indisputably places both N’Gale and Basiae cloths in the “red” category and gives rise
to their generic name of Basiae» (cit.).
The n’golobè is the Combretum micranthum, a plant very much used by traditional
African medicine, and very much studied by European pharmacology (especially in
France). The leaf extract inhibits the growth of different Streptococcus and
Staphylococcus; crushed leaves and bark powder are applied to sores and wounds; a
decoction of the fresh or dried roots is also used to wash the wounds. Different root
extracts showed in vitro highly significant antibacterial activity against a range of
pathogenic bacteria. A water extract from the leaves showed moderate wound healing
activity. This Combretum is so interesting from a medicinal point of view that the
species has been listed in the African Pharmacopoeia, the Ghana Herbal
Pharmacopoeia, and the Therapeutic Guidelines of the Ministry of Health in Mali (see the
species data-sheet in PROTA).
We do not know all of the plants traditionally used in the bogolanfini making: some of
them were kept secret and still remain today. Many Malian artists who use bogolanfini
as a canvas add a secret mix of herbs and leaves to the fermented mud: there’s no hope
of stealing their secret.
Probably we know only some pieces of the puzzle, but the plants that we know were
used to make the ritual bogolanfini, are all medicinal plants whose active compounds
possess antibacterial or antimicrobial properties, or can decrease the inflammation and
improve the wound healing.
Brett-Smith wrote that the medicinal knowledge was coded into bogolanfini designs. I
should say, rather, that the traditional folk medicine and the empirical knowledge of
herbalism have been embedded in the bogolanfini complex processing.
Bogolanfini was not imbued with medical information: it was literally imbued with
It did not communicate a medical knowledge: it acted as a poultice or a cataplasm,
whose recipes have been developed and passed down by generations of women.
This empirical knowledge was integrated into the traditional animism to be socially validated and culturally legitimized: this was the only way female wisdom could become a cogent and binding custom in a patriarchal society.
That some traditional bogolafini were medications is a hypothesis strengthened by the
data coming from a different field: the Hippolyte Bazin’s Dictionnaire Bambara-Français,
that, as Sarah Brett-Smitt reminds, was published in Paris in 1906, says that Basi, from
which derived Basiae, means “remède”, effective remedy.
THE MODERN BOGOLAN
A cloth is not a cloth. Now you know that it holds true for bogolanfini, at least. The traditional mudcloth is more of an encyclopedia or a piece of history and culture than a piece of cotton; it’s alive and kicking still today. Its procedures and some of its secrets are accurately preserved and passed down from generation to generation in some Malian centers, like the “N’domo Atelier” in Ségou.
The traditional rural bogolanfini is the “father” of the modern urban bogolan which knew an intense expansion phase between the late 1970s and the early 80s and is today a remarkable economic asset for Mali.
The modern bogolan has successfully adapted to the current national and international markets: it shows more colors, fewer characters, and more simplified elements. New symbols, as the stylized Chiwara, have been added to the traditional ones. It’s still handmade, but the mud painting has become faster thanks to the use of stencils and the final step is made by using chlorine bleach mixed with karité butter soap. More than a betrayal of tradition, these changes are a sign of the bogolan vitality: only dead things are changeless.
LEFT: Hand painted mudcloth, with image of Ciwara headdress, Mali, 2003. «The Ciwara is a men’s masquerade headdress used among the Bamana peoples, but since independence in 1960, it has also been used in various official Malian logos. It has become a symbol of Malian national identity, rather than Bamana ethnic identity. Mud cloth itself is a symbol of national identity as well». Text and photo by National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, US.
RIGHT: A Chiwara Headdress, from the late 19th or the early 20th century, 72.4 x 30.5 x 7 cm, Bamana Culture, Mali, Arts of Africa Collection, Brooklyn Museum, US (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).
Our journey is over.
Here’s a video recorded and filmed live by Playing for Change in the old village of Kirina, near Bamako, featuring the Italian rock guitarist Roberto Luti and the well-known Malian musician, Mahamadou Diabaté. Born in Mali in 1975 from a Mandinka griot family that has played music since the 13th century, he is one of the greatest masters of the kora, a 21-string instrument built from a large calabash. It’s an antique, sophisticated instrument that has something of a lute, something of a harp, and something unique from Africa and the Mandé culture. In the video, the Kora is played by one of his sons, Sayba, while he plays the calabash drum. Enjoy!
Diaraby | Playing For Change | Live Outside
Victoria L. Rovine, BOGOLAN. Shaping Culture through Cloth in contemporary Mali, Indiana
University Press, 2nd ed., 2008.
Pascal James Imperato and Marli Shamir, Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali, in
African Arts, vol. 3 no. 4 (Summer, 1970). Published by UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies
Elsje S. Toerien, Mud cloth from Mali: its making and use, in Journal of Family Ecology and
Consumer Sciences, vol. 31, 2003.
Sarah C. Brett-Smith, Symbolic blood: cloths for excised women, Anthropology and aesthetics,
Mar 1982, Vol. 3, pp. 15 – 31.
Duponchel Pauline, Peinture à la terre, bògòlan du Mali, in Journal des africanistes, 1999, tome
69, fascicule 1. Des objets et leurs musées, pp. 223-238.
Mukta V. Limaye et al., On the role of tannins and iron in the Bogolan or mud cloth dyeing
process, in Textile Research Journal, November 2012.
Ahmed H. Arbab, Review on Anogeissus leiocarpus, an potent African traditional drug, in
International Journal of Research in Pharmacy and Chemistry, July 2014.
Akrofi, M., Ocran, S.P. , and Acquaye, R., Decoding the Symbolism of Bogolanfini, Korhogo and
Fon Fabrics, in African Journal of Applied Research, vol. 2, no. 2, October 2016.
Museo e Villaggio Africano, Quaderni di approfondimento, Tessuti d’Africa 1 – Bogolan, Kente,
Kuba, Convento di Basella di Urgnano (Bergamo).
DO YOU NEED ANY HELP?
Did you inherit from your aunt a tribal mask, a stool, a vase, a rug, an ethnic item you don’t know what it is?
Did you find in a trunk an ethnic mysterious item you don’t even know how to describe?
Would you like to know if it’s worth something or is a worthless souvenir?
Would you like to know what it is exactly and if / how / where you might sell it?